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    Organic Wave Sweeping into Chocolate

    Little segment shows big potential.

    U.S. chocolate lovers in growing numbers are discovering how to pander to their addiction and simultaneously help the environment by buying organically certified chocolate, according to a report by Reuters.

    With $70 million in annual sales, organic chocolate is a tiny part of the estimated $6 billion U.S. market, but like organic coffee, it's rapidly becoming mainstream, said Chris Samuel, spokesman for Green & Black's USA Inc., at the 9th Annual New York Chocolate Show.

    Organic chocolate industry revenue is growing by 40 percent a year, with Green & Black's controlling about 20 percent of the U.S. market, Reuters reported.

    "Taste is what started it but the press on health benefits has stimulated more interest in the natural organic market," Samuel said. "Now there is an explosion of interest."

    Large and small chocolate companies are following the organic wave. Hershey Co. purchased Oregon-based Dagoba Organic Chocolate in October. Hershey's move followed the acquisition by British-based Cadbury Schweppes of Green & Black's in May 2005, according to Reuters.

    Jeff Shepherd, chocolatier and owner of Oregon-based Lillie Belle Farms, started offering organic chocolate, some flavored with berries, four years ago. Selling from the trunk of his car he made $500 his first year. He has since opened a small factory that generated gross revenues of $400,000 in 2006, and he estimates he will do $1 million in 2007.

    "People are starting to pay attention to what they put into their bodies," Shepherd said. "And they also look at the little organic treats they put into their bodies."

    While most consumers focus on taste and health, manufacturers also point out the environmental benefits. Made from cocoa grown in sustainable rain forests, free of herbicides and pesticides, and purchased from farmers who receive guaranteed prices under fair trade agreements, organic chocolate helps protect the environment, proponents say.

    Organic chocolate costs more. A one-and-a-half-ounce bar of Shepherd's chocolate is about $2.50 compared with less than $1 for a regular chocolate bar from a c-store or vending machine, according to the report.

    Shepherd is undergoing the organic certification process and will spend an initial $7,000 for approval and then annual fees.

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